December 27, 2016
Image from Jacobin Magazine
In our previous piece in this series, we argued that the recent presidential election revealed the potential for a socialist political force to successfully appeal to those awakened to the perspective that neither the Democrats nor Republicans represent their interests. In this piece we turn to examine one recent proposal for an organizational form that attempts to channel this new consciousness into advances for the working class.
The latest issue of Jacobin Magazine features an article by Seth Ackerman containing what he calls a “blueprint” for a new party he hopes will rise to the challenge. While the piece has its merits, ultimately the party and strategy he proposes contribute very little to advancing a progressive, to say nothing of a socialist, vision.
Ackerman’s piece has a promising enough opening. It would be valuable, as he states, “to advance new electoral strategies for an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class,” since the predominant liberal-left strategy of attempting to win victories through the Democratic Party has yielded little fruit over the past decades. (We add, of course, that the activities of “an independent left-wing party rooted in the working class” should certainly not be limited to elections!) But unfortunately, Ackerman ends up endorsing that same left-Democrat strategy, albeit in a circuitous fashion.
Ackerman’s analysis draws on the history of the Labor Party, a party whose mistake, he argues, was to pursue a separate ballot line. However, the Labor Party, not wanting to be a “spoiler” and take votes away from a Democratic candidate and thus increase the likelihood of a Republican victory, only actually ran a candidate on its own ballot line once in a “last-ditch effort near the end of its active life” in South Carolina. But the inability, or unwillingness, of the Labor Party to actually contest elections led many to question the rationale for the social-democratic party’s existence. This “nagging question,” along with the decline of the labor movement generally, sealed the Labor Party’s demise.
It is in his analysis of third-party electoral politics in the U.S. that Ackerman actually has something valuable to say. This discussion, which takes up the bulk of his article, buries the argument that small third parties have any chance at electoral success in the U.S. under present conditions. The barriers that a third party faces in the “uniquely repressive” U.S. electoral system are legion: Democrats and Republicans appear automatically on ballots, whereas third parties “have to overcome a maze of cumbersome legal requirements”; seeking ballot status mandates third parties cede control of internal party matters to hostile state legislatures; after obtaining ballot access third parties need to fend off harassment, legal and otherwise, from mainstream party partisans; etc. Ackerman concludes, “We need to realize that our [electoral] situation is more like that facing opposition parties in soft-authoritarian systems, like those of Russia or Singapore.”
Ackerman then launches into a critique of the “prevailing model of progressive political action for decades” of working within the Democratic Party:
[E]lecting individual progressives does little to change the broad dynamics of American politics or American capitalism. In fact, it can create a kind of placebo effect: sustaining the illusion of forward motion while obscuring the fact that neither party is structurally built to reflect working-class interests.
This correct and common-sense (for leftists) observation gives the reader the expectation that Ackerman will be proposing a break with the Democratic Party—reinforced when he rightly criticizes the NGOs (e.g. MoveOn, Our Revolution, etc.) and parties like Working Families Party that effectively march to the tune of the Democratic Party. But, regrettably, this is not the course that Ackerman takes. Instead, with an ironic titular nod to Lenin, Ackerman lays out the meat of his proposal in the last section of his piece, “A Party of a New Type”:
The following is a proposal for such a model: a national political organization that would have chapters at the state and local levels, a binding program, a leadership accountable to its members, and electoral candidates nominated at all levels throughout the country.
As a nationwide organization, it would have a national educational apparatus, recognized leaders and spokespeople at the national level, and its candidates and other activities would come under a single, nationally recognized label. And, of course, all candidates would be required to adhere to the national platform.
But it would avoid the ballot-line trap. Decisions about how individual candidates appear on the ballot would be made on a case-by-case basis and on pragmatic grounds, depending on the election laws and partisan coloration of the state or district in question. In any given race, the organization could choose to run in major- or minor-party primaries, as nonpartisan independents, or even, theoretically, on the organization’s own ballot line.
The ballot line would thus be regarded as a secondary issue. The organization would base its legal right to exist not on the repressive ballot laws, but on the fundamental rights of freedom of association.
Ackerman follows this underwhelming proposal with suggestions for financial-legal wizardry for sustaining such an organization. Finally, he concludes his piece by saying, “A significant part of the labor movement would have to be at [the proposed organization’s] core.”
What are we to make of Ackerman’s blueprint? The contradictions of the proposal with the rest of the article are striking. In the same paragraph, Ackerman talks of avoiding the ballot-line “trap,” but then offers it as a plausible option. The minor-party primary route is suggested, but Ackerman convincingly demonstrated the impotence of third parties earlier. The organization is purportedly going to be carried by the labor movement, but Ackerman correctly pointed out the labor movement has been in secular decline. This organization, at first glance, sounds like an attempt to revive the Labor Party, which would be doomed for the same reasons, according to Ackerman, that the Labor Party failed: inability to decide whether to run on a ballot or not, facing the nigh-insurmountable constraints that the U.S. electoral system imposes on third parties, and the erosion of the organization’s labor movement base.
What, then, is left of Ackerman’s proposal after this dead-end course is ruled out? He admits the possibility of the organization running candidates in major-party primaries. Barring some unforeseen mainstream political realignment, this can only refer to one party: the Democratic Party. Thus we are back at a strategy Ackerman earlier bemoaned. But one wonders what the benefit of Ackerman’s proposed organization would be in implementing this strategy. The organization could not enforce meaningful discipline, since expelling a candidate would not prevent him or her from running on the Democratic ticket. Funding for primaries would make an additional stop at the organization’s bank account, but nevertheless end up in the pockets of Democrats. “Progressive” Democrats face significant pressure to distance themselves from anything like a socialist agenda, but would face no threat of losing the organization’s voters as Ackerman argues, “We’re better off with such politicians in office than without them.” In sum, Ackerman’s pitch to progressives can be condensed as follows: continue voting for and working with Democrats, but add a comforting attempt at deliberative process.
Really, if one wants the Democrats to win, and insists that any political organization ought to make room for Democrats to win elections by remaining on the same ballot line, then it follows that things will be better if the Democratic Party does not collapse as an organization. Many would support the Democratic voting bloc as essentially a necessary evil for protection against Republican excesses and active disenfranchisement. Since a defensive vote for the Democrats can be rationalized as an ethical imperative (i.e. saying it takes privilege to not vote), there is every likelihood that supporting victories for Democrats in critical situations will logically unwind into the ‘progressive Democrat’ position of trying to give the party a chance to win any election possible, including by supporting candidates from the party’s right. With the Democratic establishment as unpopular as it is, enthusiastic leftists are often the only way for it to reconstitute itself, just as has been the pattern since the early days of the Popular Front and community organizing.
If the local branch of the Democrats in a midwestern town is moribund, then left activists could get some sway in local and state politics by reviving the branch, but that would also strengthen the party at all levels. In all likelihood, these kinds of left candidacies would make it very easy for voters to avoid having to make a hard choice to give up on the Democrats, and to continue to identify with them in state and national races. The Democratic Party, as it happens, has habitually used this approach not only to drum up support for unpopular higher level candidates, but to draw idealistic activists into the dead end of Democratic internal politics.
But perhaps most importantly, keeping the Democratic Party alive means preserving the chance for it to succeed as a national political force, and that has always meant keeping the Democrats’ policies viable in the eyes of capitalists. These kinds of compromises happened more than once before, and so long as it matters whether the purported good side of capitalist politics stays alive, it proves necessary to give the better capitalists the means to actually govern. So in fighting the defensive battle against the greater evil, supporters of the Democrats will be politically engaged in promoting the success of their side, and therefore committed to preserving capitalists’ capacity to rule.
It seems Ackerman has not given up on the dream of transforming the Democratic Party into a social-democratic party. Since this vision fundamentally depends on rebuilding the labor movement, one wonders why Ackerman evaded that issue, and left it to the last sentence of his piece to mention that it would be a requirement. It is the sine qua non of social-democracy; all tasks reduce to it.
Why does Ackerman utilize a roundabout argument which denounces Democratic party politics-as-usual before implicitly endorsing it? It is because, on the one hand, he recognizes that the current U.S. electoral system leads to terrible outcomes for workers and the world at large. But on the other hand, all alternative electoral options seem to be closed off. The cruel logic of the two-party system, of “spoilers” and “lesser of two evils,” leaves him no choice but to put on a brave face and cast what will surely be a defeat as bold innovation.
On careful analysis, there is no way to avoid the conclusion that what Ackerman calls a new party is actually a proposal to run largely as a caucus in Democratic primaries. He is forthright in saying that he prefers Democrats to win under many circumstances, but even if this were not said, the strategy unfortunately leads to working for the political success of the Democratic Party. In this, the new Jacobin proposal shares much with attempts at left politics over the past half century, and there is a critical need to go in a different direction now.
Lines of Demarcation
If we do need a new party, or a new organization, that represents the working class, there has to be a clear line which specifies the limits of members’ permissible participation with a bourgeois party such as the Democrats. Traditionally, the socialist answer to this problem has been a simple one: absolutely no collaboration with bourgeois parties. Deviating from this mandate, as in the Popular Front era, merely subsumed working class organizations under the control of bourgeois forces where they were, predictably, deradicalized. Working for the election of a bourgeois candidate is a tried and true way to sap the energy of the left, delay more meaningful struggles, and ultimately demoralize those who had been inspired to join in the political fight. A solution like Ackerman’s will remain highly persuasive until a better alternative is offered and challenges are made to Democratic Party affiliation. This alternative is in fact that of the historical socialist parties, which Ackerman fails to characterize accurately.
Ackerman implies that his proposal reconstructs the approach of parties that have been democratic and socialist, but he makes a major revision which he does not identify. In fact, the socialists of history placed the first and greatest emphasis on the class that their party would represent. If socialists are correct that society is divided by exploitation and oppression into classes with opposed interests, then a party can only effectively represent the interests of either the capitalist class or the working class. Members of the middle class have a chance to make common cause with one class or another, but they must choose. The Democratic party represents such a coalition between capitalists and parts of the upper middle class, but in elections it blackmails workers into supporting it for fear of something worse.
Socialists around the turn of the last century tended to believe that the difference in interests between workers and capitalists was nothing less than a war fought between the destruction of the lives of the working population on one side, and the liberation of the world on the other. This was as true during World War I as it is today. For the working class to have actual influence in politics, it would need its own party. To argue with capitalists within a common party, for example by contesting primaries, would deprive the workers of their real chance to see at least one organization in society represent their interests. Therefore, the independence of the working class was an issue to be taken care of first, without which party democracy would be meaningless.
It may seem extravagant to say that the workers of this country will support a party exclusively for themselves and the shared interests of the international working class, but that was exactly the politics of the workers’ parties that Ackerman admires, and it is already confirmed in the negative by mass rejection of the capitalist parties. That said, Ackerman is right to emphasize that a party should be organized democratically, in permanent contact with its members and accountable to them, and with a public and binding platform.
Socialists of the past regarded an independent working class party as indispensable, and for good reason. Ackerman contends that we should vote for candidates who are inspiring, and that this creates hope and momentum. Bernie Sanders comes to mind as such a figure. But for socialists, it is not particular candidates who are on the ballot, but the working class as a collective political actor. When workers vote for the socialist party, they are not asserting that they support and have hope in some set of leaders, rather they are voting to register that the working class should have power, and that a certain number of workers have made that their objective. Indeed, the socialist candidates could sometimes be less inspiring members of the party, depending on the circumstance. In a way it is better if we see voting simply as a way to test our strength and show to the working class as a whole that there is a majority of the population who have the interest and capacity for revolution and socialism. This is because voting is not an effective, nor particularly socialist, way to exercise power in a capitalist country.
The capitalist state is a power over and above the population, which represents the power the working class does not have, which is instead wielded by their oppressors. The electoral and political processes, through most of history, have been very good at suppressing the development of the power and interests of the masses. This is why we turn to social movements, but the state is also effective in granting concessions so that the social movement will die, and these concessions can be taken away again.
Nevertheless, the working class in particular has control over the labor needed to keep society going, and in times of crisis has the opportunity to attack and defeat the existing power structure. When people vote, they typically hope that the candidate will use the power of the state in a better way. Unfortunately, this is almost always proven wrong, either because of deception or failure. Voting for Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders, or Stein, exercises only a tiny amount of power, but it does express an intention to test out whether the candidate will use the power of the state somewhat more favorably. In this sense, it is an alienation of one’s political intentions and consciousness, that ratifies another person holding power that we do not hold.
Generally speaking, putatively socialist parties in office have helped the working class much less than they promised. Also, this usually results in disappointed hopes, an electoral reversal, and eventually a new government that sweeps away most of what the socialists enacted. It is even worse when the candidate is not a socialist. The only compensation is that voting for the workers’ party can express confidence in the power of the working class, in addition to any candidates or parliaments. In fact, socialists historically said that they knew they would not be able to rule a capitalist state in the interests of the workers. And they admitted that since socialists could not control capitalism through parliament, it would be a lie to say otherwise, and a betrayal of the voters’ hopes. Again, these are radical ideas, but regrettably they are true. Socialism is a philosophy that says human beings have more power if they are free, treated with dignity, and provided full information.
In honesty, the best we can say is this: an election is important not as a blow against capitalists directly, but as a sign to the rest of the workers of our strength and readiness. Getting an official elected will usually not produce much material good, but it can have a very great effect in allowing us to defend our views, attack the capitalists in argument, disrupt the legislative process and to argue publicly for organizing the working class in the most effective ways available, outside the electoral process. All of these things are important, and make participation in elections worthwhile. But when people conclude that elections and candidates cannot help them, they are more correct than most leftists, and we can only justify our participation in politics if we offer some kind of improvement over abstention. A socialist election campaign would be an improvement, while a socialist running within a party that most people already reject would be a setback.